The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System Was an Expensive Failure
And it might be coming back
In 2007, the U.S. Army began embedding anthropologists and other social scientists in combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. It called the initiative the Human Terrain System.
HTS aimed to improve soldiers’ knowledge of the local populations so that they could better attempt to win over hearts and minds in the face of ongoing insurgencies. If that failed, the soldiers would at least, in theory, have an enhanced understanding of their enemy.
The program immediately stirred controversy. Social scientists, particularly anthropologists, objected that collaborating with the military violated research ethics and put scholars and their subjects at risk. HTS fieldworkers were often uncertain of their own performance or goals.
Worse, the program became plagued by fraud, racism and sexual harassment. At least three HTS social scientists were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one HTS contractor murdered a detained Afghan.
With a price tag of up to $159 million a year, HTS was also expensive. Very expensive. In fact, it remains the most costly social science program the U.S. military has ever conducted.
Then word spread that the Army had quietly discontinued the program, with no public announcement, in the fall of 2014. The only problem is that the Army didn’t really end HTS. New reports suggest that it is alive and well on the downlow. Those still involved might even be covertly trying to rustle up more money for it.
Above — Human Terrain Team speak with local children in Sabikhel, Parwan province, Afghanistan, on June 21, 2010. Combat Camera Afghanistan photo. At top — U.S. Army troops escorting a Human Terrain Team is seen through a police vehicle in Baghdad, Iraq on July 17, 2009. American Forces Network Iraq photo
The basic idea behind HTS was to deploy units called Human Terrain Teams, or HTTs, consisting of five-to-nine contractors each. Some members were career academics with Ph.Ds, while others were former special operators. The HTTs were embedded with combat brigades and tasked with gathering cultural, historic and economic information in order to advise soldiers and commanders on issues related to local customs and perspectives.
When HTS was announced, some greeted it with a considerable deal of hope that it could help end the wars grinding on in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also very quickly met with condemnation and controversy.
In October 2007, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) released a formal statement calling involvement in HTS “unacceptable” for ethical reasons, and because it put researchers and their subjects in danger.
Some of the social scientists who did agree to work with HTS didn’t seem particularly qualified. In her book The Tender Soldier, reporter Vanessa M. Gezari recalled one meeting with two HTT members.
“While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online,” Gezari wrote. “She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use.”
Gezari noted another encounter in which a member of the Human Terrain Team “casually told a sergeant that he could have sex with me if he gave the team member some supplies he wanted.”
If ineptitude and inappropriateness weren’t enough, the AAA’s concerns about ethics and potential dangers to subjects and researchers alike proved valid. Members of HTTs began participating in interrogations of Afghan detainees no later than 2009, and at least three social scientists in HTTs were killed.
On Nov. 4, HTT member Paula Loyd was doused with gasoline and set on fire by a man she had been casually speaking with in a bazaar in Chehel Gazi, Afghanistan. She died two months later. Her story became the focus of considerable media attention and central to the narrative of Gezari’s book.
When Don M. Ayala, a former Army Ranger contracted to work as part of an HTT, heard of what had happened to Loyd, he put his nine-millimeter sidearm to the temple of the man detained for the attack and summarily executed him. Ayala was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $12,500 by a U.S. federal court.
But a few deaths in a conflict zone and a bunch of anthropologists getting fussy at what they consider unethical behavior was surely nothing more than a blip on the Pentagon’s public relations radar, if even that, in terms of evaluating the success and future of the program.
Results were what mattered, and it appeared commanders in the field valued the program — at first, anyway.
Col. Martin Schweitzer commanded an Army brigade operating in Khost, Afghanistan, that became the first to host an HTT. He believed the team made U.S. soldiers and Afghans in that province safer. Schweitzer credited the HTT with earning the support of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in a majority of the province’s districts, and with reducing the overall number of combat engagements. He estimated the HTT’s efforts reduced combat operations in the province by up to 70 percent.
Schweitzer wasn’t alone. Many soldiers and commanders held the program in high regard, particularly in its early years. One brigade intelligence officer said HTTs outright “kept his soldiers alive.”
The praise from Schweitzer and others for the Human Terrain System helped it grow and secure greater funding. At its peak from 2008 to 2012, HTS oversaw up to 28 HTTs in Iraq and 31 in Afghanistan, with an annual budget of up to $159 million.
Human Terrain Team members and U.S. Army soldiers meet village elders in Koshab Village, Afghanistan on April 3, 2011. U.S. Army photo
Then things got ugly. USA Today and others began reporting on egregious mismanagement, fraud, racism and flagrant sexual harassment within HTS.
“Many commanders scoffed at the reports from the teams and often relegated them to bases. Some team members were paid $280,000 annually for work that investigators suspected had never been done,” wrote Tom Vanden Brook, who covered the Human Terrain System for USA Today. “A 2010 Army investigation concluded that the program had been ‘fraught with waste, fraud and abuse.’”
Roberto J. González, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and longtime critic of the program, suggested blame for the internal snafus lay in large part with defense contractor BAE Systems. BAE received one of the largest contracts to manage HTS, and there is evidence the company might not have properly screened contractors it brought into the field or provided them with necessary training.
As the funding and demand for HTTs increased, BAE apparently went on a “hiring binge.” Both González and Gezari argued that many of the academics brought into the program possessed little knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture, and that very few of them could speak or understand any of the local languages of the region.
As news of the HTS’s troubles spread, some of the people who funded it started demanding answers. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, lambasted HTS as a waste of money and aggressively pushed to cut its funding.
In 2013 Hunter sent letters to House committee chairmen and the Secretary of the Army asking them to cut funding to HTS. “The reduction in funding and teams [from previous years] was necessary as a result of inadequate performance and necessity, but the overall cost and failures of HTS indicate that the program be considered for termination,” Hunter wrote.
González suggested that the criticism from Hunter, the problematic field reports that did surface, and the death of three contractors contributed to the decline of HTS, but there were several other factors as well. According to one report from National Defense University, the U.S. military possesses “a strong cultural aversion to irregular warfare and to devoting resources to sociocultural knowledge.”
David Petraeus, America’s top military officer in Afghanistan from June 2010 to July 2011, pushed back against this supposed “aversion” and was a longtime supporter of studying human terrain, but it appears his vision might have gone with him when he retired. Finally, despite a lingering insurgency, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to be winding down for U.S. combatants. All of these factors also contributed to a general decline in gathering human terrain intelligence.
The Pentagon has increased its emphasis on geospatial intelligence, in many ways giving it preference over cultural intelligence. Geospatial intelligence gathering allows some of the work performed by HTS to be conducted at a distance, from locations within the U.S., thus decreasing the need for contractors in the field.
That need would decrease even further as combat operations died down.
Human Terrain Team members in Farah City, Afghanistan on Jan. 22, 2013. Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah photo
In an email from last June, Army spokesperson Gregory Mueller said that HTS had ended in the fall of 2014. Commanders in Afghanistan no longer had a need for input from civilian social scientists, since combat missions had effectively ended. In sum, “there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater.”
Critics of the program rejoiced at the news of its termination.
“HTS is a program that had no legitimate application in a war zone or out of one, and the termination of the program was overdue. But it’s odd that the program was canceled only after the Army made repeated efforts to defend its use and effectiveness,” Hunter said. “If anything, the Army’s decision shows that HTS is a program our troops can live without.”
However, recent reports show that Army officials simply adjusted the scope of HTS. Instead of shuttering it, they scaled it down and shifted away from deploying social scientists. Instead, a small group of “experts” based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, gathers, reviews and processes cultural intelligence before providing it to commanders. They also changed the name from the Human Terrain System to the Global Cultural Knowledge Network, or GCKN.
If there is any doubt, a Defense Department official clarified that GCKN is not a replacement for the HTS, but is in fact a part of it. The official said HTS is alive as GCKN, and could be looking for more money.
And GCKN staffers know that they’re going to be compared to HTS and have been preparing to defend themselves against further controversy. One leaked memo instructs staff to create a presentation about the program in anticipation of “Evil People Questions” — whatever that might mean. The memo predicts that critics will say the new program “Smells like HTS” and gives pointers on how to explain its differences.
The memo further instructs staffers on how to explain that the Army’s cultural expertise is superior to that of other government sources or “any number of sites that I can Google?”
Hunter was not happy to hear the program had been kept alive under a different name.
“It’s absolutely astonishing that the Army wants to convince itself that it never killed HTS after it was publicly acknowledged that the program was done,” Hunter said. “Even if true, that the program was never killed, the Army was happy with members of Congress and the scientific community thinking and believing it was killed. The Army is evidently OK with taking people for fools.”
All in all, HTS spent $725 million since 2007. If nothing else, Hunter should take solace in knowing that GCKN is operating with a comparatively measly annual budget of $1.2 million. Its entire staff consists of two Army officers, two civilian employees and five contractors.